Feline Enrichment and Writing Tips with Sassafras Lowrey (PPiC Ep 11)

The importance of enrichment for cats, Sassafras Lowrey’s latest books Claw This Journal and Jillian at the Junior Showcase, and tips for aspiring dog and cat writers. The latest episode of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation

By Zazie Todd PhD

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Watch episode 11 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation on Youtube or below, listen via your favourite podcast app or below, or scroll down to read the highlights.

Enrichment for cats and tips for aspiring writers

In this episode, we chat with dog trainer and author Sassafras Lowrey. We start with her latest book, Claw This Journal, which is full of fun activities to do with your cat. We learn about how Sassafras’s cat Thing came into her life and why she wrote this book. We talk about enrichment for cats, and how it’s important to tailor it for individual cats. 

We take one of the activities from the book, making awards for your cat, and consider what our cats would get prizes for. We also learn about Sassafras’s most recent book, Jillian at the Junior Showcase.

We get Sassafras’s tips for budding writers and find out about her own writing routine. And as always, we chat about the books we’re reading right now. 

Reading Cats and Dogs: The recording of A Conversation with Lili Chin, Sassafras Lowrey, Zazie Todd and Kristi Benson  (Reading Cats and Dogs is also available on Youtube)

Interview with Sassafras Lowrey about Chew This Journal

About Sassafras Lowrey:

Sassafras Lowrey  is a Certified Professional Dog Trainer (CPDT-KA), Certified Trick Dog Instructor (CTDI), AKC CGC/Trick Dog Evaluator and AKC FIT DOG Instructor.  Sassafras’ dog training books include Tricks In The City and Chew This Journal. Sassafras is an author and multimedia educator who writes regularly about dog training for leading national publications. Sassafras’ dog training articles have regularly appeared in leading dog magazines like Dogster, The Bark, Modern Dog, and with The American Kennel Club as well as mainstream publications including WIRED, Apartment Therapy and The New York Times. 

Sassafras was recently the recipient of a Cat Writers Association Muse Medallion award for her magazine work about cat training.

Sassafras Lowrey’s website  Facebook  Twitter  Instagram  

The books we chat about 

On Animals by Susan Orlean 

Doomsday with my Dog by Yu Ishihara 

Comparative Animal Behavior by Richard Maier 

Bad Cree by Jessica Johns. 

The books are available from all good bookstores and the Companion Animal Psychology Amazon store  

The books recommended in episode of 11 of The Pawsitive Post in Conversation are On Animals, Doomsday with my Dog, Comparative Animal Behaviour, and Bad Cree

Highlights of the conversation with Sassafras Lowrey

Z: The reason that we’re talking to you today is because of your wonderful book Claw This Journal which is fantastic, I love it. It’s so full of activities to do with your cat. It’s really fun, [it’s got] all different kinds of things in there and it’s got space for people to write in it as well. So you can do the activities, you can keep track of what you’re doing, there’s even a section on decoding your cat’s meows. It’s just lovely. So tell me about this book, Sassafras, and why you decided to write it. 

S: Yeah so this is a book that was so much fun to put together. I feel like there are not enough necessarily like ideas about enrichment and play with cats out there. And so I was really excited to be able to to bring together some of my favorite activities and things to to encourage people to have more fun with their cats, try new things with them. And so yeah it was a ton of fun to do and really came out of conversations that I have had with cat lovers wanting to get ideas for different things that they can do with their cats. 

K: So one of the things that I really like about this book and your similar book for dogs is that there’s room and places for you to write which I think helps prompt people to think. I liked how it made me think about my own cat and the stuff that I do with my cat. So one of the parts that you had was about your meeting with your cat. So what was your meeting with your cat Thing? Tell us about that.

“I’ve done a lot of writing about junior handlers and within the dog show world and so it was very fun to be able to create a fictionalized twist on that story.”

S: Yeah, so I currently have one cat. His name is Thing. He is nine and a half which doesn’t actually seem possible to me. But we had a pretty eventful first meeting. I was living in New York City. I was walking home, it was fairly late at night in the middle of a snowstorm, and there are in many communities, but definitely in Brooklyn where I lived, there are a lot of feral cats. And we saw — I was walking with my partner — and in the middle of the snow we saw something dart from a pile of trash bags on the street in New York to a snow bank. And we thought it was a rat at first and then we saw it move again and we realized it was a very, very small kitten. 

And so I immediately start pulling dog treats out of my pocket and I’m trying to entice this very small kitten, who is alone, out of this snow bank and out of in between bags of trash, because there is a blizzard in fact coming in that night. And so as we’re trying to catch this kitten the bodega owner from across the street comes out very kindly with some cat food because he fed the feral cats in the neighborhood, and he proceeds to attempt to help us catch this kitten. He has gloves on, he catches the kitten Thing, the kitten that became Thing bites him, breaks the tooth off on this guy’s glove. 

K: Oh no! 

S: And he’s like do you still want this cat? And I’m like “Yes?” because I can’t leave this kitten outside. We bring it home. We already had two dogs and two cats at this point. And he immediately charmed his way into everybody’s hearts and ended up ultimately being raised by my senior dogs at the time. And the senior cats were like we don’t know what you are but you can stay. So that was the very eventful way that we met Thing. 

Z: That is quite an origin story for the cat. Thing is obviously a very special cat! And one of the things that I love about this book is you have a section called Best in Show. And it’s about how amazing all cats are, but how every cat is amazing in their own way. And I really love that. And actually that set me thinking about my cats and I’m also going to ask Kristi what her cats will get awards for too, because I think I love the way this book is such a conversation starter. So for Thing, what awards have you made for Thing? Have you made any? What would you make for Thing? 

S: I think that Thing is a very special cat, but I think his top prize is probably Pizza Thief. He is a kitten and we like to say it’s probably his origins. We think he was about six weeks old when we found him you know. So he had probably been surviving on bagels and pizza crusts and things like that. But he is a little carb fiend and you have to have to watch your pizza slices because he definitely can make off with a pretty good size slice of pizza. I don’t recommend, it’s not good for cats, but if he had his way he would be the ultimate Pizza Thief. Yeah, it’s what he would like. 

Z: Awesome. And Kristi what would you give Apricat an award for? 

K: You know I think it would be hard. There’s going to be like first, second, and third for him. But definitely lap, he is an inveterate lap cat. He needs tons of lap time and so when I’m gone Yoenne, my wife, will sometimes send me a message and just be like Apricat’s on my lap again, like I can’t even stand up. I think because I work at home, so he’s on my lap most of the day. I think he’s either on my chair or nearby so when I go away she’s just like wow I didn’t realize how much lap time he needs. So he’s definitely gonna be like the winner for the lap, any lap competition. Sorry other cats and dogs. [Laughter] 

But he also really likes to, and I think it’s probably a reinforcement sort of contingency that I’ve set up, he likes to walk across my keyboard and bat at my screen. Like earlier today I was having a banjo lesson and Apricat was just like that, “Your banjo instructor’s going down!” And so he was hitting my screen repeatedly and then I was like, what was that? I didn’t quite hear you know, like my computer was just wobbling around because I tried to, what chord is that? Yeah and then I’ll just put him on my lap behind my banjo, it’s okay. 

So that would definitely be his number one and number two I think, would be the lap. And then I call it pestering you know very fondly, but he definitely likes to get attention. And here he comes, he’s like “You’ve you called, human?”. 

S: Yes, Thing is very good at those video games, the one’s for cats that you can swipe. He should be, yeah he’s all about it. He’s like smack it down. 

Z: Excellent and I love that Apricat came to join us too. My cats would not win for lap time. I have two cats. They would definitely not win for that. But Melina would win for being conversational because she’s very, very talkative. She’s a tortoiseshell cat so she lives up to that reputation that tortoiseshells have of being very, very chatty. And she makes all kinds of noises, it’s not just meows, it’s lots of chirrups. And you can have a long conversation with her if you meow at her, but she does even like mmm kind of noises and if you go mmm she’ll go mmm. And lots of very beautiful chirrups. So she’s always talking, she’s always saying something, so that’s what she would win for. 

As for Harley I kind of joke about Harley and I make out that he’s not a very clever cat, but it’s not true because when he cares about something he’s incredibly clever. And the thing he is so good at is opening doors, and he can open all of the doors pretty much. So if it’s a door with a handle that you push down, he can jump up and he can push it down so that the door opens. If he’s on the wrong side of that door, some of our doors don’t actually shut properly because it’s an older house, so he can put his paws underneath and he could open it that way. 

And then we have a door that’s a sliding door that slides, like a pocket door it slides into the wall. So if that door is closed he can put his paw underneath it and he just jiggles it about until it starts to open and then he puts his paw up and opens it that way. And all of the cupboard doors in the hall, he can open all of those basically. You cannot keep this cat out of anywhere unless you actually put a latch on or lock it. 

And he opens the cupboard doors in the kitchen. One time I found him curled up in a frying pan in the kitchen cupboard! So his prize is for opening doors. And luckily we have one door that we have a round door knob on, which is against building code because a lot of people struggle to open those round doorknobs, but we have one and that’s the only door that he cannot open. So that’s his prize. That’s a very good talent. And I love that your book made me think about these things, Sassafras, I think that’s really cool.

K. So I think we’re talking about enrichment. I feel like for Apricat slapping the screen is pretty enriching for him, at least I try and frame it that way. So I’m not like I just want to work. Then you have a lot of enrichment in this book which I think is great and I think Zazie already mentioned this is, and you did too, Sassafras, is something that people miss for cats. You know I think a lot of people are thinking about it for dogs but I don’t think it’s really reached the cat world as much. So why is enrichment so important for cats and what’s your cat’s favorite enrichment activity? 

S: Yeah I think it’s such a exciting topic that’s just starting to really become more popular or talked about more in the cat world. I think when we think about enrichment it’s often about dogs. And people are like, cats are easy pets they just sleep all day, and it’s like no, no our cats really, really benefit when they have opportunities to use their brains and when they have opportunities to get more active, and it’s such a great way to bond with them. 

So I love trying out different enrichment activities. In the book it’s divided out in different kinds of you know cat purr-sonality ideas. And you know it’s just for fun but not every cat is going to enjoy the same things. 

There were a variety of activities in the book that Thing would not be a fan of. But his definite favorite things in terms of enrichment, because he was so young when we found him and we had very senior cats, I can’t think of how old they were at the time, they passed when they were 20 and 21. So I think they must have been like 15 when we found him, and they were like you’re not part of us. 

So he became really connected to the dogs because the older cats were like you are active and young and not one of us, they were littermates. So he was always very excited about what I was doing with the dogs. So his favorite enrichment definitely is he likes to get involved in trick training that I’m doing, but on his terms. So it’s all on his terms. If the treats are out he’s like, I would like treats please. So he’s very good at spin, he’ll sit, he’ll give you a high five, he enjoys doing some trick training. 

But his all-time favorite is probably his window bird feeders. We have some bird feeders that are outside the window and he will very happily sit and just watch the different birds that come to eat there. So every year for his birthday the last couple of years, he’s gotten another bird feeder to watch. So now he has like a whole little array of channels. 

Z: Awesome I love that, and you’ve got so many different enrichment activities in the book and I think they’re all fun for the cat but also fun for the person.

K: Earlier we spoke to you about the book that you have written that’s similar to this book for dogs [Chew This Journal]. I know Zazie and I were talking about this, but it’s interesting that you’re writing for both cats and dogs. And I know there’s a lot of people who have both, but I also think just you know, not scientifically, that they’re sort of a Venn diagram. And there’s certainly people who are all dog and people who are all cat and they’re going to be a little bit different I think in my mind at least. So I guess we’re curious about what differences do you find about writing for cats, recognizing that some people will be in the both camp, but some people will definitely be very much in the cat camp. Was it different? 

S: Yeah you know it’s always such an interesting, I don’t want to say challenge but it’s always an interesting puzzle, to make sure to appeal to the people that are like deep cat people. I think there’s a lot of us that are in both, that are both dog people and cat people, and then there are the cat people that are very like, if you do things with dogs I am so not interested. So it’s always a little challenging. I’ve actually written for cat magazines and about cats for, gosh, over 10 years, though I think a lot of people don’t necessarily know that. And I think it’s because the cat people have their own world and the dog people kind of have their other world so sometimes dog folks they’ll be like, I didn’t know you did things with cats, and I’m like yes, yes I do.

Putting together this book, it came about because I had won the Muse Medallion from Cat Writers Association for an article in Catster magazine about trick training with cats. It was a cover story in 2020 or 2021, uh 2021 I think for the magazine. And so when I won the Muse Medallion, the publisher of the dog book was like we should talk about cat activities, and I thought about it and it was like, yeah we absolutely should. 

“I was really excited to be able to to bring together some of my favorite activities and things to to encourage people to have more fun with their cats.”

So we’re going back to this conversation that we were having a couple minutes ago about enrichment being kind of not as commonly thought about for cat people. When I was putting the cat book together, it really was not different necessarily than the dog book in terms of my writing process, but I was very, very thoughtful of making sure that the activities in the book were things that cats were going to enjoy and that different kinds of cats would enjoy. And that there would be something for all cats from the very outgoing, social, maybe sort of like dog-like cats, as we’ll maybe describe them, to cats that are much more shy and reserved. And I wanted to have things in there for every cat. 

K: So do you find that there’s stuff that like, thinking again about Venn diagrams, is there stuff that you would say is only for dogs, stuff that would be good for both, and stuff that’s only for cats? Do you have that in your mind? What would you, if you were cornered, what bucket would you put certain things in? 

S: Yeah you know I think that It’s tricky because cats are so, so different. So like for example I would absolutely never, ever take my cat Thing out to a pet friendly store. That would not be fun and exciting for him, he would find that very, very scary. A cat that I had 20 years ago was a cat who absolutely loved going places, like from a tiny kitten to the day that he passed he was super outgoing, nothing scared him. He would have loved that. And I think most cats probably fall closer into the camp of going backpacking, out hiking, that kind of stuff, probably not what they want to be doing, probably more of a dog activity. But there are absolutely cats that enjoy those things. So I tended to err on the side of activities that were closer to home for more of the activities in Claw This Journal, though certainly there are kitty exceptions to that. 

K: Right, for sure. I used to be into sled dog sports, and I couldn’t even count on all my fingers and toes the number of times people have sent me like a Facebook video of a cat that skijores. And I’m like okay this is cool, but no. That’s like, I’ve never met a cat like that. No. 

S: Yeah there’s always, like that one TikTok cat that  does all the things and I believe that cat is clearly having a good time, nothing is indicating that that cat is stressed or unhappy. But that’s a one in a million cat. 

K: Yeah exactly, yeah. 

Z: Yeah and I think one of the things that I love about your writing, not just in this book but the dog books as well and in Tricks in the City too is that you’ve thought about different creatures and what they individually might like, and you’ve made sure that there is something for everyone’s cat or everyone’s dog. And you’ve been clear about what kinds of things to think about as to whether a certain activity would be appropriate for your own pet, so I think that’s a really nice thing to do. So yeah thank you for that. And you’re such an accomplished writer because you also write for children and I think it’s your most recent book, Jillian at the Junior Showcase. Tell us about this book. 

S: Yeah so Jillian at the Junior Showcase was my most recent book released in January. And it is a chapter book for young readers, really all readers, that is set in dog shows. And Jillian is a young girl who really, really wants an agility dog of her own. She attends Kennel Club with all of her friends and one day she finds a little terrier mix behind the gas station that has been abandoned there and is hoping that that dog will become the agility dog of her dreams. So that was a super fun book to write. I’ve done a lot of writing about junior handlers and within the dog show world and so it was very fun to be able to create a fictionalized twist on that story.

Kristi Benson is an honours graduate of the prestigious
Academy for Dog Trainers, where she earned her Certificate in Training
and Counseling (CTC). She also has gained her PCBC-A credential from the
Pet Professional Accreditation Board. She has recently moved to
beautiful northern British Columbia, where she will continue to help dog
guardians through online teaching and consultations. Kristi is on staff
at the Academy for Dog Trainers, helping to shape the next generation
of canine professionals. Kristi’s dogs are rescue sled dogs, mostly
retired and thoroughly enjoying a good snooze in front of the
woodstove. 

Website: http://www.kristibenson.com/  Facebook   Twitter 

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of  Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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